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Wojczyk v. Colvin

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

October 14, 2014

CAROLYN W. COLVIN, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, Defendant.


MARK G. MASTROIANNI, District Judge.

This is an action for judicial review of a final decision by the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration ("Commissioner")[1], denying Plaintiff's applications for disability insurance benefits and supplemental security income ("SSI") benefits. See 42 U.S.C. § 405(g); 42 U.S.C. § 1383(c)(3) (referencing 42 U.S.C. § 405(g)). The parties have filed cross-motions for judgment on the pleadings. At issue is whether the Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") erred by failing to adopt the opinions of a treating source when reaching conclusions regarding the scope of Plaintiff's mental residual functional capacity ("RFC").

As discussed below, the ALJ properly exercised her discretion in determining what weight to give the opinion of staff at the agency where Plaintiff received bi-weekly therapy. The court will, therefore, deny Plaintiff's Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings, (Dkt. No. 17), and allow Defendant's Motion for Order Affirming the Decision of the Commissioner, (Dkt. No. 20).


The parties are familiar with the factual and procedural history of this case, so the court begins its discussion with the standard of review.

A. Standard of Review

The role of a district court reviewing an ALJ's decision is limited to determining whether the conclusion was supported by substantial evidence and based on the correct legal standard. See Seavey v. Barnhart , 276 F.3d 1, 9 (1st Cir. 2001). "The findings of the Commissioner of Social Security [and his designee, the ALJ] as to any fact, if supported by substantial evidence, shall be conclusive...." 42 U.S.C. 405(g). Substantial evidence means that "a reasonable mind, reviewing the evidence in the record as a whole, could accept it as adequate to support [the Commissioner's] conclusion." Rodriguez v. Sec'y of Health and Human Servs. , 647 F.2d 218, 222 (1st Cir. 1981). The Commissioner can only find a claimant is impaired if there is evidence before the Commissioner from an acceptable medical source establishing the existence of a medically determinable impairment. See 20 C.F.R. §§ 404.1508, 404.1513. Additionally, it is the Commissioner's responsibility to weigh conflicting evidence and decide issues of credibility. Rodriguez , 647 F.2d at 222.

B. Disability Standard and the ALJ's Decision

With respect to Plaintiff's claim for disability insurance benefits, Plaintiff must establish disability on or before the last date on which she was insured, March 31, 2013. Entitlement to SSI requires a showing of both disability and financial need. See 42 U.S.C. § 1381a. Here, Plaintiff's financial need is not challenged.

The Social Security Act (the "Act") defines disability, in part, as the inability "to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or which has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than twelve months." 42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(A). An individual is considered disabled under the Act,

only if his physical or mental impairment or impairments are of such severity that he is not only unable to do his previous work but cannot, considering his age, education, and work experience, engage in any other kind of substantial gainful work which exists in the national economy, regardless of whether such work exists in the immediate area in which he lives, or whether a specific job vacancy exists for him, or whether he would be hired if he applied for work.

42 U.S.C. § 1382c(a)(3)(B). See generally Bowen v. Yuckert , 482 U.S. 137, 146-49 (1987). In determining disability, the Commissioner follows the five-step protocol described by the First Circuit as follows:

1) if the applicant is engaged in substantial gainful work activity, the application is denied; 2) if the applicant does not have, or has not had within the relevant time period, a severe impairment or combination of impairments, the application is denied; 3) if the impairment meets the conditions for one of the "listed" impairments in the Social Security regulations, then the application is granted; 4) if the applicant's "residual functional capacity" is such that he or she can still perform past relevant work, then the application is denied; 5) if the ...

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